Maile Meloy: “Madame Lazarus”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus” was originally published in the Jun 23, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

In “Madame Lazarus” a wealthy, retired Parisian banker, who does not tell us his name, does tell us that upon the occasion of his retirement, his lover and partner, James, had given him a dog. We know that they are partners, because the banker refers to their apartment as “our” apartment.

James is glamorous and English, but much younger. During the course of the story, it appears that James is slowly separating from his partner of long standing, taking longer and longer trips abroad for business, coming home only for the parties at which he is so good, so successful. The two men had been together for “many years.” The banker sums up their relationship thus:

When you are the older man, you can be equal, for a time. He has youth and beauty, but you have wealth and experience. You know many people, and you can take him to Portofino, to Biarritz, to Capri. It is an old story.

I liked this story a great deal. I was at first a little ill at ease, knowing that the author, a woman, was writing about a gay man. But I decided that in a way, the story is universal, and just as the banker says, an old story, although perhaps not the story you first think.

Upon first reading, I bought the old man’s take on things; the trophy spouse had moved on. But on second reading, it began to seem that the old man’s isolation might not be due solely to the series of gradual abandonments that James has played upon him. Possibly the older man has had his own part in the disintegration of the relationship.

The old man indicates that the problem between the two men is the way the older man’s aging has altered their relationship, and that may well be the case, or partly the case. But as the story unfolds, it seems that the older man has difficulty focusing on people. His ex-wife, of whom he is fond, for whom he has respect, and whom he still sees, says that he “never really saw her.” The banker protests, and says that Simone is “an elegant woman, all angles, gold bracelets on thin, tan wrists.” He says nothing of the way she cared for him or cared for their children or cared about her work, or was devoted (or not) to God or anything else.

One wonders if James might have felt the same way — that his lover had never really seen him. The banker describes James in this way, remembering him at parties:

He is good-looking, of course, with the well-cut brown hair and the trim body and the bespoke suit. He has a brilliant smile, very warm and interested and sincere, and when he talks to people they feel special.

But the banker goes on to say, “They want to do business with him [. . . .] who he is talking to, this person gets everything.”

The banker says nothing of any lovely intimate moments they might have shared in these “many years”: there is no treasuring of casual breakfasts, dinners out, movies shared, music heard, or any other indication that this was a meeting of minds or souls. Instead, the banker says, towards the end:

I think of James, our long life together, his shoetrees in the closet, his clothes on the floor.

When James gave the banker the dog (so many years ago), he named the dog Cordelia, “not for Lear, but for the English novel.” He might as well have named the dog for Lear, because the old man seems to drink up people like the old Lear, needy and blind and almost mad. But probably, the dog is named for Cordelia Flyte, the youngest sister of Sebastian Flyte, in Brideshead Revisited. Cordelia is the one who truly loves the dissolute Sebastian, the one who might have been a nun. Sebastian, for all his beauty and charm and aesthetic sense, is inaccessible to most people, even the ones who love him. Of course, even the recollection of the novel itself is a recollection of the intense friendship between Sebastian and Charles Ryder, a friendship of soul-mates, except that Sebastian is a hopeless drunkard.

There is thus a sense of love lost in the gift James gives the old man as well as a sense of the need the old man has for love — like Lear — an almost insatiable need for love. So the dog’s name is a message, of sorts.

As for Madame Lazarus, that is what the vet calls the dog Cordelia, seeing as how she has foiled death. The question is, though, who is it that is living a death in life, who is it that has been brought back from the brink?

I have not given the story away, I think. I am merely saying there’s much to hear if you’re listening. The story has several other dimensions: the way the man treats his housekeepers, the way Cordelia, the tiny dog, awakes the banker, and the secrets that the old man has kept for so many years. It is, of course, deeply moving that the fact of these secrets have shaped the old man’s entire life.

You might think, on first reading, that the story is warning the reader about the tragedy of the trophy spouse. I think not. The warning is far different, far deeper, far more touching. The warning has to do with how death, in its many forms, is the natural next step when you must keep silent about a secret that is life itself to you.

I liked the way Meloy interwove all these elements, liked the quietness of the story telling, and I liked the way the story gave me the experience of a series of realizations.

12 thoughts on “Maile Meloy: “Madame Lazarus””

  1. Betsy says:

    My apologies, Trevor, Ms. Meloy, and everyone. I mistyped that first quote. It should say: “He has youth and beauty; you have money and experience.” My apologies – when told right – it is a very telling line.

  2. Betsy says:

    And I did it again! It reads, and I double-checked:

    “When you are the older man, you can be equal, for a time. He has youth and beauty, but you have money and experience.”

  3. Roger says:

    Betsy, I’m interested in your points about the character flaws in the banker that go beyond the trophy-spouse scenario. But even so, I think Meloy squandered her considerable talents on this one. It is, indeed, “an old story,” one where the older spouse takes advantage of his money, experience, and sophistication to procure a much younger, good-looking spouse. That the banker may have other shortcomings wouldn’t do much, in my view, to generate interest in him. He has secured his trophy spouse, James, and now finds himself sad because James is losing interest in his aging flesh. In addition, James now has acquired his own success and sophistication, so he no longer needs the banker as a mentor or guide. Their relationship seems to have been purely transactional, on both their parts, and for that reason has run its course, to the banker’s dismay. His plight — intended to provoke the reader’s sympathy — seems more like a just dessert, and one that was quite predictable.

    Meloy does gives us the memory of the pure love the banker supposedly felt toward another young man before and after the war. (I say “supposedly” because the two young men barely spent any time together.) This felt very much like a device, something grafted onto the story to try to persuade the reader to view the banker in a more sympathetic light. It failed for me. So the banker had his heart broken seventy years ago. And so he lived his early life in a social milieu that was inhospitable to gay men. Neither of these has much to do with the mutually exploitative nature of the deal he made to establish a committed relationship (or the trappings of a committed relationship) with James.

    As a thought experiment, let’s pretend that this story had concerned a heterosexual relationship: an older man – a straight version of Meloy’s banker – and a younger woman enter into a transactional marriage; years later, the younger woman loses interest and spends lots of time away from her husband. An even older story than the one Meloy tells, though really it is the same story. I doubt such a situation would generate interest, unless it were spun in a particular way as it was by Phillip Roth in “Everyman.” There, the protagonist recognized his trophy-wife marriage as the result of his foolishness, and that recognition was essential to enable the reader to care about him.

    So I’m suggesting that Meloy’s story assumes the reader will be interested in the banker’s plight merely because the banker is gay. A double standard is at work in this story’s writing and the New Yorker’s decision to publish it.

    On a different note, I loved the affection the banker felt for the dog. It was touching and a reminder of what Meloy can do.

  4. Betsy says:

    Roger – there’s so much in your post to consider! I can only reply to a couple of your ideas here.

    First of all, your comparison to Philip Roth’s “Everyman” interests me, but I haven’t read it yet. I am interested in your point that the reader feels for the hero in “Everyman”, whereas we cannot engage with the banker in Meloy’s story. I understand what you are saying about the banker. I found him difficult to like partly because he’s difficult like and partly because I have a kind of Yankee affinity for dogs – they’re fine in their place, at my feet – but they’re not people! But that’s an idiosyncratic reaction.

    The role that the story of the dog plays in the narration interests me. You mention that you “loved the affection the banker felt for the dog.” I liked the way she used the dog as a frame for the banker’s isolated situation. I thought it worked a little bit the way Munro uses layers of stories as a primary device – the stories speak one to another. Munro can have as many as six or seven simultaneous stories when she really gets going. (“The Peace of Utrecht”, for one)

    “Madame Lazarus” has the dog story, the story of an aging man – someone who might be about 80 – the story of the two young men, the story of the mis-matched banker and his handsome young man, the story of the husband and wife, the stories of the housekeepers, the (slight) story of the banker’s children, and the implied story of war-time Paris, with all its betrayals and suffering. And then there is the shadow story of how the trophy-wife story plays out in straight society.

    The single strongest reverberation I get from these intertwined strings is this: the way the privileges of class can warp a person without their even knowing they’ve been warped into a kind of profound isolation of their own making. Twined with that is the emphasis on silence.

    It is the silence required by the secrets that impels the whole story for me, and that interests me. I think I need a few days to have that gel – but to me that a few days is necessary for a story makes it an even better story.

  5. Ken says:

    I really liked her way of creating the character’s voice here. I could practically hear this person speaking. What no-one noticed is that the person seems to be writing in English (beyond the story being in English) but as a native French speaker. The character uses English with his partner and also the housekeeper. Why would Meloy do this? I find it an interesting device. Normally, we’d just assume the person was speaking French but (just as Europeans or Romans in Hollywood movies always speak English) here they’re speaking English with certain French patterns such as referring to “the shit” not simply “shit.”
    I didn’t see their relationship as being so purely transactional as Roger or Betsy. Granted, there is that aspect but I didn’t see that as all it was.
    My primary response to this story was that of being very moved. I don’t exactly say this as praise. Obviously, one isn’t moved by things that are bad. But…does the fact that the pitiful story of an aging animal and an aging person and their mutual affection (if you can call it that) is painful to me make it a great story or just a masterful button-pusher. After all, I’m always upset when animals die in movies, but that doesn’t make them Citizen Kane. Part of me almost thinks this story reaches bathos in spots, but the narrational voice is what saves it.
    I hope this wasn’t too rambling. I think I really liked this story. I certainly enjoyed it and was moved. Is it great writing? That’s where I’m not so sure.

  6. Ken says:

    I should have put the “but” after the parenthesis about European or Romans in Hollywood films. It’s clearer that way.

  7. Betsy says:

    Ken, you are right- nobody mentioned the fact that the narrator is a Frenchman speaking in English. I mentioned that I was at first a little ill at ease with a woman telling the story of an elderly gay man. Now that you make me think of it, I should have been a little ill at ease with her telling the story of a French man. I would love to know if a French person thinks she gets away with it! It’s a kind of a tight rope!

    I agree with you that the relationship of the two men is not purely transactional. One of the things that tugs at me about this story is that the older man feels abandoned, but I am not sure that he is telling us the whole truth. How would the younger man tell the story? Is there a possibility that the younger man sees the older man as a locked room mystery? Is there a possibility that the younger man has always experienced the older man to be distant and maybe even a little cold?

    In a way, there’s a generational difference that separates the two men. The younger man may have come of age in a more open period, may have had to keep fewer secrets, may not have had to marry just because his family wanted him to, or may not have had to provide his family with an heir and a spare. the younger man, whom the banker indicates has great powers of empathy, may have been able to develop his empathy just because he was not loaded with fear.

    The older man has so many secrets. He realized quite early who he was and understood that must be a secret. He realized that he had to keep the lover secret, even though he was willing to tempt fate, like any teenager, by having the young man to his house. That the young man lights up the house implies that the house until then has been dark.

    The old man had to keep his sexuality a secret from his wife, something that further trained him to be unavailable to other people.

    During all this time he could not tell the story of his first love – how he survived and the other died. For sure he must have felt guilty that he survived the war by having been sent to England, while his lover remained behind and got tuberculosis in prison. He was unable to do anything to save the young lover when he died so inexplicably and suddenly in front of him. Presumably, the banker had never been able to confess his sorrow and guilt to anyone else, had never been “forgiven” by the fact that someone else had heard his story.

    I find the old man’s attempt to save the dog poignant – when wrapped in the old man’s history. I agree with you – I find the story touching.
    .

  8. Rosalind says:

    What a good short story! I appreciate all your comments.

  9. Arnold says:

    On the narrator being a Frenchman speaking in English, Maile Meloy says in a New Yorker interview, “This Week in Fiction: Maile Meloy”, posted by Willing Davidson, June 16th, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/06/this-week-in-fiction-maile-meloy-1.html, that she always has at least one character who speaks English as a second language “to get away from my own voice”, and also that she loves ” the structure of Romance languages as they make their way into English”.

    Excellent story, and perceptive, sensitive comments above.

  10. Roger says:

    More specifically, she says every book she’s ever written has a character who speaks English as a second language. Two of her books are short story collections (Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It and Half in Love – great collections). I don’t recall how many stories have English as a second language speakers in them, but I’m sure it’s not every one.

  11. I finally caught up with this one, which I needed to do since Meloy is a favorite. The strongest aspect, for me, was the man’s relationship with his dog. That was tender and caring and much stronger than the other aspects of the story. I haven’t read the comments above yet, but that’s my initial response.

  12. lotusgreen says:

    I don’t see the banker as a self-centered or manipulative character; it’s that when he has related to people he’s done it through the same expected social roles as do the people with whom he is engaged. Of his ex-wife, “She was very appropriate, with a good family, the most graceful lines in a dress.” This was not a connection of souls, not in either direction.

    Of James, the banker says, “James is young, far younger than I. When you are the older man, you can be equal, for a time. He has youth and beauty, but you have money and experience. You know many people, and you can take him to Portofino, to Biarritz, to Capri. It is an old story.” That story and their connection was clear, to both of them, from the beginning.

    Then along comes the dog. “At first I believed that the appearance of love from a dog is only a strategy, to win protection. Cordelia chose me because I was the one to feed her and to chase away the hawks and the wolves. But after a time we crossed over a line, Cordelia and I.” The dog broke free of the expectations, crossing all the borders, including the one that had protected the banker’s heart. And once that membrane is rent, it becomes the only thing that matters.

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